How to Skillfully Navigate Tough Feedback in Leadership

POINT OF THE POST...

Leadership tends to attract lots of feedback. Learn how to turn challenging critiques into opportunities for relational connection and increased influence.

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People Gonna Be Difficult

It’s inevitable if you’re in a people leadership space.

The people following you will have opinions and suggestions for you.

I had a love/hate relationship with these people, especially when I was in pastoral leadership. I loved that people cared enough to want to see things be better (and offer their opinions on how this could happen). But I also knew these people needed more information to fully evaluate or offer a solution.

In my more immature leadership days, I’d listen to their “suggestions” and respond kindly with a “thank you for all that.” I didn’t appreciate their “feedback” well. And they didn’t learn more about my leadership role or the complexity of my decisions. 

Here’s what I learned: My attitude and response weren’t helping make us better or the feedback giver feel heard.

For small, passing, or simple feedback, you can easily listen and respond in kind. But it’s the more challenging topics that create the more significant problems. These are the topics that bring the most difficult feedback. 

What Would You Do If You Were Me? 

I learned to begin these “feedback” conversations with this question: “What would you do if you were me?” It became my go-to question. I encourage you to adopt it, too.

Whenever a person brought me a frustration, I’d ask this question. The smarter people came with an answer to my question, some offering their solution before I even asked my go-to question. Most everyone came up with an answer in record time. For them, what we should do was clear. 

They were passionate. When people want to meet to share a frustration or problem, it’s often personal to them. These people deserve to be heard but must also be lovingly informed.

Uninformed opinions create underdeveloped solutions.

After introducing my go-to question, I’d navigate the conversation to my end in mind. 

I’m Glad I Don’t Have Your Job! 

When someone approached me with a problem, I’d ask my go-to question: “What would you do if you were me?” As I said, the person always had an answer.

Here’s the secret next step: I’d listen to their suggestion or solution and gently respond with, “Well that would work, but…” and offer additional information they didn’t know, see, or understand.

Here’s a silly example. A person in my church once said, “We should have a Saturday night service because that would be easier for my family and many others I know.” Perhaps that was true. So I responded with my go-to question, “What would you do if you were me?” They instantly suggested they would launch a Saturday night service next week.

And here’s where I always had a little fun.

Me: “We’ll, that could work, but should we offer preschool ministry?”

Them: “Well sure. Many people with little kids may want to come.”

Me: “Okay, what about elementary school programming or students?”

Them: “We should offer it all so everyone in the community can attend!”

Me: “That sounds great. Based on how we operate our ministries now, we’ll need about 45 new volunteers by next Saturday. How many people do you know who can step in this week?”

Them: “Uh…”

Me: “While you think about, here are a few more things that come to mind. Running a service costs money. So we may need to increase our budget by $20,000. Maybe $30,000. And our staff is really stretched thin, so we may need to look at hiring some people. That’s going to cost more money, too.”

Them: “Oh yeah. That’s a good point.”

Me: “I really do want to solve this tension, though. I’m just not sure this is a solution we can take right now.”

Them: “I get that. I’m glad I don’t have your job!”

Bingo!

I’ve used this exact conversational progress on just about every topic imaginable. People with legitimate concerns and partially informed solutions must sit in your seat with all (or most of) the information and realize it is more challenging than it appears. Once they reach this conclusion, they appreciate not only you and your job but also the complexity of leadership.

Give It A Try

Try this the next time you find yourself in a challenging leadership conversation with a problem and solution-giver. Navigate the conversation from “What would you do if you were me? to “I’m glad I don’t have your job.” What questions can you ask to help them move toward this realization? What information do others not know that can help them realize the complexity of leadership decisions?

The best part of this approach isn’t that people stop bothering you but that the approach helps grow your relational influence.

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